For this special fully staged production after ten years of radio dramas, Lean & Hungry Theater sure picked a doozy. Lear isn’t for the faint of heart. For one, the notorious and gruesome eye gouging is one of the most sickening sequences that I’ll never get used to. Then there’s the unending treachery among one’s closest cadre of family and friends that makes this a tough sell. Having someone in command of the text who has a sense of the play’s core elements is crucial and that’s just what the gift is here.
Director Jessica Hansen, who also helped adapt the text, combines a perfect pitch ear for the Bard’s underlying intention and translates everything with a modern sensitivity. Perhaps the special ability comes from years of experience with radio drama, reducing everything into words and sounds across the airwaves. However she’s acquired it, it works.
This King Lear is conducted with a modern look and sensibility, bringing a whole new perspective and freshness to the interchanges on stage. The play opens with everyone in modern attire celebrating with champagne and tipping wine glasses eagerly awaiting the next loving sentiment and accolade about the king. Once he doesn’t get the fairest compliments from one of his beloved daughters, the mood shifts, alliances are made and broken and shifted again, and Lear sinks further into incoherence, all while shouting out inanities fit for an asylum. How can one be loyal to one’s leader who sounds perfectly lucid only to himself? It’s a perfect query that is alarmingly appropriate today.
Bill Grimmette brings a bucketload of power to the leading role of Lear and it’s an amazing capstone performance. Lear has to have a powerful command that comes through from the inside to keep the audience engaged in his twists and turns, and Grimmette has the gaze and emotional grip to make it work. At the same time, as Lear falls into the morass of his delusions, Grimmette raises the decibel level and falls into the shouting trap. At times he seems to forget that effective shouting comes through in deliberate doses instead of full throttle all the time, a situation which I’m sure will calibrate through the run.
From that opening scene when he accepts toasts from his daughters, Grimmette turns on a dime when Lear doesn’t hear what he wants to hear said as he wants to hear it. He’s graciously accepting as the first two daughters (Megan Malone Behm plays Regan and Duyen Washington plays Goneril) adoringly praise him. When his third daughter Cordelia, played with endearing strength by Sarah Anne Sillers, is at a loss for the right words to adequately express her love, he turns on her with a ferocious emotional thrashing that would flatten anyone with less spine and backbone. But Sillers shows that Cordelia is more than a gentle daughter speaking truth to power. She demonstrates grit in listening to the hurtful taunts and accepts the consequences with a stick-to-it determination. Cordelia’s sense of power in truth is what intrigues me in what would otherwise be just a gory wandering Shakespearean experience.
The other relationship that Lean & Hungry gets just right is the connection that Lear has with his trusted friend Gloucester. Jim Epstein portrays Gloucester with warmth, humor and depth. He serves as a steady counterpoint to Lear, ducking and dodging the crazy scenarios and coming across with integrity, purpose and strength. The treasure of the production is seeing these two fine actors play off of each other with Shakespeare’s banter that’s endured for centuries.
Kevin Finkelstein is the wiley Edmund, a kind of artful dodger who slinks and slides with grace to set the stage and get what he wants. The always wonderful Jessica Lefkow helps to anchor the piece with her abundant talent playing Kent and disappearing into her role as the beleaguered servant assiduously taking notes. She’s a hoot and gives her all with decisive movements and penetrating expressions.
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closes April 23, 2017
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As the ensemble maneuvers to get their best out of the situation, they play off of each other with a natural rhythm. The actors also play multiple roles while handling the dysfunction, mercenary greed and shifting alliances that run their course. G. Michael Harris is a strong and blustering Cornwall, while Steve Lebens does a notable turn as Albany who has married the other daughter, Goneril, and who tries to find a peaceful way through the morass, to no avail. With kingdoms and power at stake, family troubles abound and the fight sequences are as quick and breezy as the truncated two-hour text.
Lighting by Katie McCreary helps set the mood of somber desolation. Christian Sullivan’s scenic design consisted of blank revolving walls that go from white to dark on both sides of the stage, a simple and effective way to reflect the light of an open mountainside or the darkness of deep set and inevitable despair.
Dramaturg Jessica Clark shares that the “ …interiority and heartbreaking examination of a disordered mind” accounts for the play’s resilience and topical appeal over the centuries. There have been and will always be renditions of Lear, but what this Lean & Hungry ensemble brings to the interpretation makes it among the most memorable.
King Lear by William Shakespeare . Directed by Jessica Hansen. Cast: Bill Grimmette, McCaul Baggett, Megan Behm, Jim Epstein, Kevin Finkelstein, G. Michael Harris, Steve Lebens, Jessica Lefkow, Sarah Anne Sillers, John Stange, Duyen Washington . Lighting Design: Katie McCreary . Set Design: Christian Sullivan . Costume Design: Kristina Martin . Composer, Sound Designer: Roc Lee . Fight Director: Casey Kaleba . Stage Manager: Rebecca Talisman . Produced by Lean & Hungry Theater . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.